Has torture always been controversial?

The wheel really ruined his day...
The wheel really ruined his day...

Waterboarding was big news a few years ago when word got out that the CIA had employed the technique on a handful of detainees. It took a minute for many in the public to catch on to what exactly the waterboarding process entailed, but once they were in the know, there was no stopping the endless discussions over whether it was an acceptable practice.

What's more interesting is that while the existence of something like waterboarding can easily slip under the radar of people busy with the minutiae of day-to-day life, those who prowl the interrogation rooms of prisons and POW camps are actually continuing a long legacy of delivering torment. Documentation proves that waterboarding has been around since at least the 1400s, and it's likely this type of torture was practiced long before that.


However, before we get ahead of ourselves let's take a closer look at what is considered torture. Interpretations have varied over the course of history, but the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment will work as a decent jumping-off point. In essence, the convention qualifies torture as any intentional act that inflicts severe pain or suffering -- be it physical or mental -- on a person for such motives as trying to elicit information or obtain a confession or for purposes of punishment, intimidation or coercion. The torture can be aimed at attaining these objectives from the person being tortured or from a third party. The final caveat is that to qualify, the act should be either inflicted by, instigated by or allowed to occur by someone in an official capacity.

Torture, in an endless assortment of variations, has likely gone hand-in-hand with human existence since our inception as a species. Many motives exist for torture, and these motives are nothing new. Vengeance is one -- offenders must suffer before they die. Torture also conveys power over one's enemies, and the threat of potential torture can suppress acts of disobedience among a population. Torture can also procure information, encourage confessions or simply punish misbehavers. Although not always explicitly called torture by name, torture can be found throughout the pages of history.

On the next page we'll dig deeper into the dark history of torture and compare how modern reactions to the practice stack up against past opinions.


Modern Views on Torture

Torture is a slippery concept. For example, it stems from general punishment, but the delineation between the two is a gray area that's wide open to interpretation. Then there's the question of effect -- what constitutes "severe pain or suffering" differs among different people. Torture also straddles the fence between acceptable and unacceptable. Like most moral conundrums, it can be viewed from many different perspectives. Sure, the torturee isn't having a good time, but what if his suffering will alleviate the suffering of many others? It's the classic Trolley Car Problem scenario.

When it comes to tolerance versus censure, the breakdown of torture basically works like this: Being familiar with the practice of torture generally leads to the approval of torture. Once torture is acceptable, then it's justifiable. And sometimes, once it's justifiable, it ceases to be viewed as torture at all. Another factor to consider in terms of controversy is a person's position in society. If someone is able to torture others and chooses to do so, then that person probably doesn't view torture as remotely controversial.


So how do current opinions of torture compare with those of the past? That's a difficult question to answer -- opinion polls weren't exactly commonplace in medieval Europe, pre-Columbian America or ancient Rome. However, we do know that torture is fairly controversial today. In a 2006 BBC survey of more than 27,000 people in 25 countries, an average of 29 percent were OK with torture being used to combat the threat of terrorism, while 59 percent were opposed. Israelis were the strongest supporters of the use of torture to oppose terrorism with 43 percent in agreement, while Italians were the most against it -- 81 percent said torture is never acceptable [source: BBC].

Historic Views on Torture

Care to spend an afternoon on the rack? Didn't think so.
Care to spend an afternoon on the rack? Didn't think so.

During the course of human history, torture often appears to have been viewed as simply a fact of life. In his book "History of Torture Throughout the Ages," George Ryley Scott notes that many primitive groups believed torture was downright inevitable among enemies. After all, ritual human sacrifice was a widespread practice, and initiation rites often involved some form of torture on a fairly frequent basis [source: Scott].

Of course, it doesn't end there. Criminals forced into the gladiator stadium, citizens charged with heresy or witchcraft, slaves accused of wrongdoings, miscreants who couldn't outrun the law -- all frequently found more than a touch of torture in their cards. Whoever the victim, he or she might have ended up poked and pulled, stripped and scalded, branded and beaten, hacked and hanged, burned and boiled, dragged and drugged, mutilated and maimed, dismembered and disemboweled -- you get the idea. From primitive tribes to ancient civilizations and from medieval societies to modern militants, torture has been a fundamental force almost every step of the way. But whether the majority of the population was thrilled or angered by torture or even cognizant that torture was a potentially arguable practice, we'll probably never know for sure.


One final aspect to consider is the fact that while many of the surviving critical commentaries of torture note its ineffectiveness in eliciting valid information and accurate confessions, they're often strangely silent on the topic of discontinuing the practice altogether.

For more information on torture, see the links on the following page.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • BBC. "One-third support 'some torture'." Oct. 19, 2006. (12/4/2009) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/6063386.stm
  • Jurist. "CIA chief confirms use of waterboarding on 3 terror detainees." Feb. 5, 2008. (12/4/2009) http://jurist.law.pitt.edu/paperchase/2008/02/cia-chief-confirms-use-of-waterboarding.php
  • Peters, Edward. "Torture." University of Pennsylvania Press. 1999. (12/4/2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=O-Y6kc3Fr-MC&lpg=PP1&ots=OEQYNL41Kc&dq=torture&pg=PR4#v=onepage&q=&f=false
  • Ryley Scott, George. "History of Torture Throughout the Ages." 2003. (12/4/2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=Tj7vbMmuvhYC&lpg=PA134&ots=Sm6OtqvU3x&dq=history%20of%20opposition%20to%20torture&pg=PA134#v=onepage&q=history%20of%20opposition%20to%20torture&f=false
  • United Nations. "United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment" (12/4/2009) http://untreaty.un.org/english/treatyevent2001/pdf/07e.pdf
  • Weiner, Eric. "Waterboarding: A Tortured History." NPR. Nov. 3, 2007. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=15886834